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Jockeying for the fast lane: A primer on net neutrality

Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 in Broadband Internet

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Net Neutrality

The idea that Internet service providers should treat data transmissions equally, a concept known as net neutrality, sounds good on the surface. Defining how net neutrality should work is getting complicated, though, because the concept means different things to people.

To me, the issue comes down to this: As Internet traffic gets busier, what kind of data should move first and at what, if any, extra cost.

In theory, net neutrality suggests there should not be any discrimination in transporting packets of electronic data, regardless of whether the information is time-sensitive video material or routine emails.

The growing volume of video traffic moving on the Internet is driving most of the debate, says Dean.

The growing volume of video traffic moving on the Internet is driving most of the debate, according to Greg Dean of the South Dakota Telecommunication Association.

“This is a very fluid issue today. There are so many moving parts,” said Dean, director of industry relations for the Pierre-based SDTA.

Dean waded through the status of the issue recently for the benefit of 17 members of the South Dakota Legislature who are representing the Sioux Falls area during the 2015 session. SDN Communications of Sioux Falls hosted the informational luncheon to provide legislators and employees general information about the state of electronic communications in South Dakota.

South Dakota’s annual, two-month, legislative session began Jan. 13 at the Capitol in Pierre. Net neutrality is not likely to be among the issues that state lawmakers deal with directly. However, spinoff issues eventually could trickle down to the state.

Net neutrality is more of a national issue. The Federal Communications Commission, which is governed by a five-member board of presidential appointees, is the key player. Under current FCC direction, broadband providers cannot discriminate in transmitting data. That policy is being challenged by some in the industry, however.

Meanwhile, President Obama has urged the FCC to regulate Internet service providers like traditional phone companies

Regulatory changes by the FCC or Congress eventually could play out especially hard in rural America. In relatively large, sparsely populated states such as South Dakota, serving broadband customers can require substantial investment in infrastructure. Without some kind of federal cost-support mechanism in place, rural customers might have to pay substantially more for service than people in more densely populated, easier-to-serve, urban areas.

Dean compares South Dakota’s electronic communications network to the state’s highway system. In the case of highways, user fees in the form of gasoline taxes help keep the transportation network maintained. In the electronic network, some transporters ride the pipeline for free.

Dean also makes a comparison with the nation’s most historic information-moving service: the U.S. Post Service, which has survived for more than 200 years by not following a policy of neutrality. Senders pay more to mail packages than letters, for example, and they pay extra for fast delivery. Should similar policies be implemented on electronic networks?

Some fear that changes could be used by businesses to hinder rather than promote competition. Do consumers need protection?

SDN, which is an associate member of the SDTA, is following the issue but doesn’t have an official position.

As a general matter, Bill Heaston, vice president of legal and regulatory for SDN, does not like the idea of increased federal regulation of the Internet. He’d prefer to see issues resolved in the marketplace. He’s not spending much time worrying about the issue, though.

“I don’t see net neutrality being that big of a political issue. I think it’s lost some of its steam,” Heaston says. “I don’t see the FCC doing any more than it’s done, at least in the next two years.”

To date, coverage of the issue has been limited largely to the tech press. A sense of urgency may pick up as video content increases and clogs information networks. For service providers and business consumers, net neutrality remains an issue worth following. The SDTA and SDN will be among those monitoring developments.

Visit the SDTA website for more information about the association.

Greg Dean made a presentation on Net Neutrality to the SDN employees just before the midterm elections. We've shared that video with you below.